success stories

Posted February 8, 2003

How Feasible Are Sabbaticals for Parish Ministers?

Eugene Hemrick

"In addition to our regular vacation, the pastor gives us three extra days a year for personal relaxation, and after seven years of serving in parish ministry we receive a three-month sabbatical with salary. He becomes very unhappy when we don't use those three days or take the sabbatical."

My first reaction upon hearing this at a seminar I attended was, "That's great if you have a big parish budget and the luxury of talented ministers who can step in when the time for someone's sabbatical arrives."

But my negative thoughts abruptly turned positive when it struck me that you really don't need big budgets to accomplish this; what you need is a well-planned budget. In the case of sabbaticals, this would best be achieved when a parish is forward looking in such a way that the goal is envisioned and small amounts of money are set aside to carry it out -- amounts that accrue over time into a large enough endowment to sustain a sabbatical program.

Good planning is an expression of the virtue of prudence.

As I pondered the notion of parishes having sufficient talent to step in when someone takes a sabbatical, I remembered parishes I've known with parishioners who were poor and, to a large extent, uneducated. How many times did I see a new pastor come in with an eye for talent and find all he needed. There is always talent to be found and volunteers who will step forward. This was found to be true by the Notre Dame study of parishes some years ago. It is not a question of whether the talent exists but of how to identify it and welcome it.

It also occurred to me that sabbaticals for those serving in parishes echo a theme our pope often repeats: They speak to human dignity. Our human spirit needs physical and mental space to maintain its strength and dignity. Sabbaticals allow for catching one's breath, getting a second wind; they are an opportunity to become more fully one's true self.

Taking time out for a sabbatical also counters a misconception in our culture -- a belief that progress can only be achieved when we are in constant motion. It is no accident that we read of God resting after his creation and commanding his people to "keep holy the Sabbath Day"!

Sabbaticals are not a luxury but an essential part of life that, more often than not, we tend to neglect or ignore. And, too, we need to recall that our church is blessed with the long tradition of monastic life.

But breaking from life's daily worries by making time for reflection, prayer and rest is not only for monks. It is vital for the world's sanity. If there is any organization that should espouse sabbaticals, it is the church, and more specifically, the parish. If more parishes afforded their ministers sabbaticals, I have no doubt that parish life would experience a new and awesome vigor.